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Workers’ Comp Issues to Watch in 2015

Tis the season for reflections on the past and predictions for the future. As we kick off 2015, here are my thoughts on the workers’ compensation issues to watch this year.

What Does TRIA’s Non-Renewal Mean for Workers’ Compensation?

Thanks to congressional inaction, a last-minute rewrite added this subject to the issues for this year. I’m not about to predict what Congress will do with TRIA legislation in 2015, as there are no sure things in the legislative process. We have already seen the reaction from the marketplace. Back in February 2014, carriers started issuing policies that contemplated coverage without the TRIA backstops. We saw some carriers pull back from certain geographic locations, and we also saw some carriers change the terms of their policies and only bind coverage through the end of the year, giving themselves the flexibility to renegotiate terms or terminate coverage if TRIA wasn’t renewed. But while some carriers pulled back in certain locations, others stepped up to take their place. While some carriers tied their policy expiration to the expiration of TRIA, other carriers did not.  Going forward, some employers may see fewer carrier choices and higher prices without the TRIA backstop, but ultimately most employers will still be able to obtain workers’ compensation coverage in the private marketplace. Those that cannot will have to turn to the State Fund or assigned risk pool.

Rising Generic Drug Prices

The opioid epidemic, physician dispensing and the increased use of compound drugs are issues the industry has faced for years. While these issues continue to be a problem, I want to focus on something that is getting less attention. Have you noticed that the costs for generic prescription drugs are increasing, sometimes significantly? In the past, the focus was on substituting generic drugs for brand names, which provided the same therapeutic benefit at a fraction of the costs.  But now the rising costs of these generic medications will drive costs in 2015. These price increases are being investigated by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) and Congress, but I do not expect this trend to change soon.

Medical Treatment Guidelines

Another issue to watch on the medical side is the continued development of medical treatment guidelines and drug formularies in states around the country. This is a very positive trend and one that our industry should be pushing for. There is no reason that the same diagnosis under workers’ comp should result in more treatment and longer disability than the same condition under group health. One troubling issue that I see here is the politics that come into play. Sorry, but I do not accept that human anatomy is different in California or Florida than in other states. I feel the focus should be on adopting universally accepted treatment guidelines, such as Official Disability Guidelines, or “ODG,” rather than trying to develop state-specific guides. The ODG have been developed by leading experts and are updated frequently. State-based guidelines often are influenced by politics instead of evidence-based medicine, and they are usually not updated in a timely manner.

How Advances in Medical Treatment Can Increase Workers’ Comp Costs

There is one area in which advances in medicine are actually having an adverse impact on workers’ compensation costs, and that is in the area of catastrophic injury claims. Specifically, I’m referring to things such as brain injuries, spinal cord injuries and severe burns. Back in 1995, Christopher Reeve suffered a spinal cord injury that left him a quadriplegic. He received the best care money could buy from experts around the world, and he died less than 10 years after his injury.  But as medicine advances, we are now seeing that a quadriplegic can live close to normal life expectancy if complications can be avoided. Injuries that used to be fatal are now survivable. That’s great news. The downside for those paying the bills is that surviving these injuries is very costly. The cost of catastrophic medical claims used to top off around $5 million, with a $10 million claim being a rarity. Now, that $10 million price tag is becoming more the norm.

The Evolving Healthcare Model

For years, workers’ comp medical networks focused on two things: discount and penetration.  Sign up as many physicians as you can as long as they will agree to accept a discount below fee schedule for their services. I’m happy to say that we are slowly, finally, evolving away from that model. Payers are realizing that a better medical outcome for the injured worker results in lower overall workers’ compensation costs, even if that means paying a little more on a per-visit basis. We are now seeing larger employers developing outcome-based networks, not only for workers’ compensation, but for their group health, as well. Employers are also starting to embrace less traditional approaches such as telemedicine. Finally, more and more employers are recognizing the importance that mental health plays in the overall wellness of their workforce. In the end, we are slowly starting to see is a wellness revolution.

The Need for Integrated Disability Management

The evolving healthcare model is tied directly to an evolving viewpoint on disability management. More employers are realizing the importance of managing all disability, not just that associated with workers’ compensation claims. Employees are a valued asset to the company, and their absence, for any reason, decreases productivity and increases costs. I feel this integrated disability management model is the future of claims administration. Employers who retain risk on the workers’ comp side usually do the same thing with non-occupational disability. These employers are looking for third-party administrators (TPAs) that can manage their integrated disability management programs. And make no mistake: Having an integrated disability management program is essential for employers. Human resource issues such as the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) cross over into the workers’ compensation realm. The same interactive process required on non-occupational disability is required in workers’ compensation. Employers must be consistent with how they handle any type of disability management, regardless of whether the cause is a workers’ compensation injury or non-occupational.

Will We See a Push for ‘Opt Out’ in Other States?

Most people know that non-subscription, or opt out, has been allowed in Texas for many years. The Oklahoma Option that started last year is viewed as a much more exportable version of opt out. Under this system, employers can opt out of workers’ compensation, but they must replace it with a benefit plan that provides the same (or better) benefits available under traditional workers’ compensation. While some view the Oklahoma Option as the start of an opt-out revolution, it is just too early to tell what impact it will ultimately have. But, make no mistake, discussions about opting out are spreading to other states. A group called the Association for Responsible Alternatives to Workers’ Compensation is currently investigating the possibility of bringing opt out to other states. I expect to see opt-out legislation in a handful of other states in the next three to five years.

Marijuana

Marijuana legislation is a very hot topic these days.  In national polls, the majority of Americans favors legalization of marijuana in some form.  Recreational use of marijuana is now legal in four states (Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska), and 23 states allow medical marijuana. When it comes to workers’ compensation, much of the attention has been focused on medical marijuana as a treatment option for workers’ comp because a judge in New Mexico allowed this last year. My concern is around employment practices. Employment policies around marijuana have been centered on the fact that it is illegal, so any trace in the system is unacceptable. That is going to change. I fully expect the government to reclassify marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule II in the next few years. When that happens, zero-tolerance policies in the workplace will no longer be valid. Instead, the focus will have to be like it currently is with alcohol: whether the person is impaired.

The Next Pandemic

Another hot topic these days is Ebola. While the threat from this particular disease seems to be subsiding, the concerns about Ebola last year showed we are not ready for that next pandemic. People who were exposed to the disease were allowed to interact with the general population and even use commercial travel. Government agencies debated whether travel to certain countries should be limited. The problem is, diseases don’t wait for a bureaucracy to make decisions. While this threat didn’t materialize, you can see how easily it could have. With work forces that travel around the globe, the threat of a global pandemic is very real. You know where you send your workers as part of their job, but do you know where they go on vacation? As an employer, are you allowed to ask about what employees do during their personal time? Are you allowed to quarantine an employee who traveled to an infected country during vacation? These are very complex legal questions that I cannot answer, but these are discussions we need to be having. How do we protect our employees from the next pandemic?

Rates and Market Cycle

You cannot have a discussion around issues to watch without talking about insurance premium rates in workers’ compensation. After several years of increasing rates around the country, the National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI) is projecting that, in 2014, workers’ compensation combined ratios were below 100% for the first time since 2006. This means that, as an industry, writing workers’ compensation is profitable again. So what should buyers expect in 2015? Well, it depends. California continues to be a very challenging state for workers’ compensation costs. New York is challenging, as well. Given the percentage of the U.S. workforce in those two states, they have significant influence on the entire industry. Some employers will see rate reductions this year, and some will not. In the end, your individual loss experiences will determine what happens with your premiums. That seems to be the one constant when it comes to pricing. Employers with favorable loss experiences get lower rates, so it pays to stay diligent in the areas of loss prevention and claims management.

Will We See More Constitutional Challenges Similar to Padgett in Florida?

While I don’t think the Padgett case will be upheld on appeal, I am concerned that the case is the first of many similar ones we could see around the country. Look at the main arguments in Padgett: The workers’ compensation system is a grand bargain between injured workers and employers. Workers gave up their constitutional right to sue in civil courts in exchange for statutorily guaranteed, no-fault benefits. Over the last 20 years, many workers’ comp reform efforts around the country have focused on lowering employer costs. Standards of compensability have been tightened. Caps have been put on benefits. The judge in Padgett looked at these law changes and ruled that workers’ compensation benefits in Florida had been eroded to the point where it was no longer a grand bargain for injured workers. He ruled that the workers’ compensation statutes were unconstitutional on their merits because the benefits provided are no longer an adequate replacement for the right to sue in civil court that that the workers gave up. Attorneys tend to mimic what succeeds in other courts, so I expect we are going to be seeing more constitutional arguments in the future.

Impact of the Evolving Workforce

One of the biggest issues I see affecting workers’ compensation in 2015 and beyond is the evolving workforce. This takes many forms. First, we are seeing technology replace workers more and more. When was the last time you went to a bank instead of an ATM? I have seen both fast food and sit-down restaurants using ordering kiosks. Also, we are seeing more use of part-time vs. full-time workers. Some of this is driven by concerns around the Affordable Care Act. But part-time workers also have fewer human resource issues, and their use allows employers to easily vary their workforce based on business needs. Unfortunately, part-time workers are also less-trained, which could lead to higher injury frequency. Finally, the mobile work force is also creating concerns around workers’ compensation. Where is the line between work and personal life when you are using a company cell phone, tablet or computer to check e-mails any place, any time? Where do you draw the line for someone who works from home regularly? There have been numerous court cases around the nation trying to determine where that line is. This is a very complex and evolving issue.

To view a webinar that goes into these topics in more detail, click here: https://www.safetynational.com/webinars.html

More States to Offer Work Comp ‘Opt-Out’?

As we are all too familiar, the handling of workers’ compensation is dictated by statutes in all states. Only Texas and Oklahoma offer the freedom to “opt out” of the statute, and their approaches are quite different.

In Texas, “non-subscription” has been around for more than 100 years. Practitioners have achieved dramatic costs savings and better outcomes for many claims. Over time, non-subscribers also often experience significant reductions in frequency and length of disability. All of these outcomes are what we work hard to help our clients achieve, but we are often frustrated by the statutory requirements of many states that bring bureaucracy and controversy to many claims.

In February 2013, the state of Oklahoma enacted workers’ compensation legislation, SB 1062, which allows any employer to exit, or opt-out of, the state’s statutory workers’ compensation system. While not exactly like  “non-subscription” in Texas, this new statute is a significant move forward in giving employers more options in how they respond to and finance employee injuries and related benefits. A key focus is on ensuring injured employees are treated respectfully and compensated fairly.

Just as there are significant differences between what Oklahoma has done and what has been in place in Texas for more than 100 years, there are state-specific opportunities to improve in many other states.

Enter the Association for Responsible Alternatives to Workers’ Compensation, or ARAWC (pronounced “A-Rock”). This national coalition of employers and workers’ compensation system providers has formed after many realized the benefits achieved in Texas and those anticipated in Oklahoma.

Where SB 1062 offers Oklahoma employers that choose to opt-out of the state system the opportunity to substantially reduce work-injury costs and avoid both the statutory system’s extensive regulation and litigation risk, similar goals for other states are being established by the leaders of ARAWC for the benefit of both employers and employees. Two key statistics show why Oklahoma changed:

  • Oklahoma employers said that workers’ compensation costs were the #1 reason they were either leaving the state or adding jobs at facilities located in other states, such as Texas.
  • National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI) statistics for 2012 showed Oklahoma loss costs to be 225% higher than those in neighboring states.

ARAWC is now developing strategies and plans that will identify the states where statutory change can bring the most benefit to both employers and employees through a more effective, efficient mechanism. The founders expect that their efforts will enable the delivery of better medical outcomes to injured workers and give employers more choice on how employee injuries will be managed. The organization will be announcing its first target state at the first of the year.

Currently, all but Oklahoma and Texas effectively mandate workers’ compensation insurance as the sole option for employers to cover employee injuries. The Texas and Oklahoma options are not currently available elsewhere. ARAWC’s mission is to expand the delivery of better medical outcomes to injured workers by expanding employer choice in other states. Experience under these alternative employee injury benefit platforms has proven to dramatically reduce employee injury costs, while achieving higher employee satisfaction and substantial economic development.

Over the past two decades, Texas non-subscribers have achieved better medical outcomes for hundreds of thousands of injured workers and saved billions of dollars on occupational injury costs. While ARAWC is not necessarily taking the Texas model forward into other states, it will leverage the learnings from more than 100 years of having options in Texas and from what emerges from the changes from Oklahoma’s new statute, to drive a strategy for process improvements and lower costs in selected states where change is overdue. It is important to remember that ARAWC views an option as a positive, competitive complement to workers’ comp, not necessarily a replacement to the current system.

Some of the core benefits that ARAWC will be seeking include:

  • Delivering better medical outcomes and higher process satisfaction for injured workers without the cost and burden of traditional workers’ compensation.
  • Driving state economic development through the attraction of employer savings.

This newly minted organization was established and is governed by a founding board that includes many Sedgwick clients that, in some cases, have tens of thousands of employees throughout the U.S. and have an intense interest in seeing those employees helped by a better-designed and -managed system.

The member companies of ARAWC aspire to refocus state-based mandates in response to growing gaps in quality medical care, efficient risk financing, effective return to work and other gaps in many current systems. Some of the other expected benefits of ARAWC’s strategy for employees are expected to be:

  • Improved workplace safety and training supporting injury prevention.
  • Expanded access to quality medical providers providing exceptional care.
  • Opportunity for expanded benefits through custom-designed plans.
  • Opportunity for reduced waiting periods for wage replacement, with greater benefits.
  • More expedient medical treatment and more immediate referral to specialized medical treatment to enhance recovery.
  • Early identification of potentially complicating medical conditions and securing appropriate medical treatment to aid recovery.
  • Improved communications with injured workers to address benefit questions and assist early return to work.

Nationwide, the experience under alternative employee injury platforms will provide employers the option of alternative mechanisms, which can result in:

  • A more competitive insurance marketplace — experience shows significant rate reductions when choice is introduced.
  • Improved incentive for existing workers’ compensation providers to improve services and pricing, knowing the employer has an option to be more engaged in helping injured workers recover and return to work more quickly and efficiently.
  • Incentives for medical providers to act in the best interests of the employee and improve levels of service
  • Expanding employee access to medical providers who do not accept workers’ compensation patients because of low fee schedules and paperwork.
  • An injury benefit plan that can more efficiently deliver care to and achieve better medical outcomes for injured workers.

ARAWC shows what an often inefficient system can motivate: change that can benefit all participants while reducing bureaucracy and many other negative elements.

As the conversations that ITL is driving are focused on disrupting the status quo, what better place to start than with choice in workers’ compensation?

5 Misperceptions About ‘Opt-Out’

The Oklahoma Option, which went into effect early in 2014, is ramping up. More employers and insurers are electing to participate. And more workers’ compensation professionals around the country want to understand the “opt-out” concept. They are thinking about their assets in Texas or Oklahoma or about the feasibility of introducing opt-out into other states.

Much of the discussion about opt-out is accurate but not complete. It is easy to absorb a part of the story. Consider the following five common ways in which it’s very easy to be half-right.

One:  For employers, opt-out is basically about saving money.

Conversations with corporate risk managers have shown me that saving on claims costs is usually not the only, nor even the leading, reason why employers choose to opt out.

Employers appear to have two complementary goals with opt-out. One is to reduce claims costs, with a target in the range of 30% to 50%.  The other is to simplify management headaches over a benefit program perceived to be excessively complicated and rife with risk of misbehavior.

Corporate risk managers, while not questioning the need for a separate work injury benefit system, are quick to say that injured employees can easily slack off in recovering from injury. They say doctors may not be motivated to get their patients back to work. Permanent partial disability benefits, in particular, are often cited as subject to gaming. In sum, risk managers see a lot of moral hazard that opt-out appears to them to severely curtail.

Brokers and risk advisers, on the other hand, appear to be more comfortable talking about reducing the cost of risk. It’s interesting to listen and respond to both messages.

Two: Employees of the opting-out employer benefit from better medical care.

Advocates of opt-out often make this claim. (There are NO pro-labor advocates of opt-out, at least yet.) The claim might be justified, were employers to measure quality of medical care and show, perhaps, that care under opt-out adheres more closely to evidence-based care guidelines.

The quality-of-care argument stems from opt-out employers negotiating service terms with well-regarded medical providers and avoiding providers and types of care they consider questionable. The employer might decide to ban chiropractic care, for instance, and use teaching hospital-based surgeons who otherwise may not treat injured workers.

Medical care quality can be in the eye of the beholder. especially along the dimension of doctor skills in listening to and communicating with her patients. What is not measured so judgmentally is the package of disability benefits accorded to opt-out employees. Inspection of the typical package in Texas ERISA plans suggests that the common opt-out benefit is superior to the workers’ compensation system when one compares after-tax income of a cohort of opt-out cases with the same cohort in the conventional system if (a big if) the injuries are well-managed for timely return to work.

Opt-out benefit packages in Texas ERISA plans typically pay indemnity benefits from the first day of disability. They do not impose caps on weekly benefits. The large majority of workers who use at least one day of disability return to work within a brief period. For them, these benefit features amount to real money. This assumes that the median duration of injury for all with at least one shift of lost time is about two weeks, and the median duration for all with disabilities lasting at least a week is about five weeks.

Compensation for injuries with long durations appear to be much less favorable to opt-out workers, if you assume that duration of disability will be the same in each system. However, one does not have to assume that durations will be the same.

Three: Opt-out claims management is a variant of workers’ comp adjusting.

A striking aspect of opt-out claims management is that some leading opt-out claims managers do not hire former workers’ compensation adjusters. Opt-out managers may even decide to not hire people with any claims experience, in any line of insurance. It’s useful to consider whether out-out claims management is more similar to absence or even productivity management than to workers’ compensation.

The opt-out claims adjuster has to have the skills and confidence to use a lot more discretion than that to which workers’ compensation adjusters are acculturated. She needs to understand the employer’s benefit plan, not workers’ compensation. She needs to act quickly and with initiative.

Over time, opt-out claims management may, at least for the larger employer, merge with absence benefit and ADA accommodation management, further removing it from affinity with workers’ compensation in the conventional sense.

Four: Negligence liability is a major stumbling block.

Opt-out employers in Texas are subject to negligence liability. An injured worker can seek economic and non-economic damages from her employer if the employer is found in any way negligent for the injury. As a defense attorney in Dallas told me, one will likely find in every severe injury some degree, however slight, of employer action or non-action that arrives in the courtroom dressed by the plaintiff attorney in negligence clothes.

Large Texas employers usually insure for this exposure and require their employees to sign mandatory arbitration agreements to cover negligence complaints. Some don’t; for instance, Ben E. Keith, a prominent member of the opt-out community incurred in 2012 an $8 million jury award over a severely scarifying injury a worker suffered on one of his first days with the company. The company had not adopted mandatory arbitration.

The Oklahoma Option extends the exclusive remedy protections of the workers’ compensation system. What will happen if the Oklahoma Supreme Court nullifies that protection? The answer depends in part on how one views the Texas experience with negligence liability. Many opt-out employers in Texas who know several jurisdictional systems appear to feel comfortable managing this exposure.

Five:  States can mandate minimum benefits for opt-out, as Oklahoma has.

The Oklahoma Option requires the employer to offer same or greater benefits than the workers’ compensation system. A lot of details need to be worked out, but there will remain a fundamental problem with the Oklahoma Option minimum benefit requirement. At first blush, it conflicts with a substantial body of court decisions that have confirmed the exemption of ERISA plans from state interference. At the very heart of ERISA plans is their immunity from state legislatures, regulatory agencies and courts.

Oklahoma law offers a means to opt-out without setting up an ERISA plan, but, given the success of ERISA plans in Texas, it is likely that employers, at least the large ones, will elect to go the ERISA route in Oklahoma.

Not being literate in legal discourse, I am the last person to suggest how this apparent conflict will be resolved, but resolved it must be and in federal court. And I expect to see some interesting arguments in favor of retaining Oklahoma’s requirement in its original or a revised form.

A California case, Golden Gate Restaurant Association v. City and County of San Francisco, offers a clue. As one commentator noted, in San Francisco, a city ordinance requires employers to make certain expenditures toward employee healthcare. Employers have a number of options for compliance, including paying a specified amount to a public insurance program that their uninsured employees can access at discounted premium rates or setting up an ERISA-governed health insurance plan of their own. At the last iteration of litigation, the local government prevailed.

The Oklahoma Option’s chances to withstand a court challenge over its benefit requirements may well depend on how the benefits are construed (this is not clear to me) and the manner in which Oklahoma employers are free to elect opt-out over the conventional system.

Getting the story right

The workers’ compensation community needs to prompt a full, transparent discussion of opt-out to get to a complete story, for which chapters are being written every day.